Tuesday, October 1, 2013

TTYU Retro: Writing crowd interactions

Today seemed a good opportunity to look at some of the factors involved in writing large-group interactions. Here are some of the possible permutations (I don't claim to be comprehensive!).

1. The chaos crowd
In the chaos crowd, nobody is really interacting with anybody else. The chaos crowd is faceless, usually moving. I tend to approach a POV protagonist in a chaos crowd by establishing the chaos of the scene (magnitude, degree of movement) and thereafter relying on just the character's impressions of things that happen nearby. The character is as likely to encounter body parts and interact with them as to encounter whole people. Dialogue is usually either uttered to one companion or shouted at anybody within reach, so not a lot of complex management there.

2. The speechmaking situation
Here you have one person who is communicating something to the whole group. That person is the center of the interaction, as it were. If that person is the POV character, then you can have the speechmaker remark internally on reactions within the crowd of the audience. They may recognize some people in the audience and note those particular reactions. If the speechmaker is not the POV character, then there will be little sense of the reactions of individuals in the crowd, unless they are right next to the POV listener. However, the POV listener will definitely react personally to what the speechmaker is saying, and will also have an impression of the general mood of the crowd. Hecklers will be noticeable auditorily to either a POV speaker or a POV listener, but unlikely to be visually identifiable unless special conditions are in place.

3. The single-center group
This is a smaller group, with a single person who is the center of attention and/or perceived as the leader. The leader is more likely to be able to manage the conversation of the others, because he or she will be the one to whom most speech is directed. Every time you have active interaction between three or more characters where their identity is important, it's critical to keep track of the interactive style, favorite topics, and personality of each participant. Dialogue tags can be critical for keeping track of whom you're hearing at any given time.

4. The multi-center group
This is a group where all or most members are known, but where two (or more) people have come in with agendas and want to be the group center. Essentially what will happen is that these people will come in and make a move for the attention of the whole group, and then the group will split one way into smaller groups. In the scene I'm writing today, Garr grabs the attention of one person and Selemei gets the attention of the other two. What can happen here, however, is that other characters can make conversational or physical moves that either unify the entire group momentarily, or cause it to break up again into another configuration. There are a lot of possible permutations here, but they will be directly influenced by the agendas of the individuals involved. Some people will tend to stick to each other while others will not. I will remark, though, that groups of four or more will have an increasing tendency to break up into smaller subgroups.

The physical position of the people involved will also have a huge influence. If it's a cocktail party or other free-form situation, people's ability to form and reform smaller groups will be enhanced. If the entire party is seated around a large table, then one will tend to choose one of the people sitting nearest and begin a conversation. Speechmaking can be started from the head of the table, and larger groups can form between people who are around a table corner, or seated across from one another, etc.

The main point of this is to say that I don't often see large-group interactions taken advantage of in all their possible permutations. It's worth putting some thought into how this stuff can work, particularly if a lot of important characters are interacting at the same time.

I also suggest you look at Deborah J. Ross and Dave Trowbridge's comments below, for some great crowd-related questions and a book recommendation on the topic.


  1. I find it useful to notice:

    +Why are these people in this place at this time? It is a marketplace, a busy intersection, a public event?

    +Do they want to be there? Do ALL of them want to be there? A rock concert, a slave auction, rush hour on the New York subway?

    +What natural or time-limited alliances exist in the crowd? Are there factions/ethnicities/social-class distinctions or a mass of detached individuals?

    +What are the underlying tensions in this population? Are all or some under threat? armed? have some motivation toward violence?

    +Is the space open or does it have barriers? Can more people enter? Are there avenues of escape? And are those avenues fixed or changeable (can barriers be broken by concerted effort?)

    1. Super additions, Deborah! Thanks so much for contributing. :)

  2. I don't really have any crowds in my current WIP, but this is an interesting way to think of them, in terms of the "centers" of each one and the POV's position relative to it.

    Personally, I find the concept of mob mentality intriguing. What's the best way to show them in fiction, especially the warped morality and "we are legion" thinking going on?

    1. Chihuahua, I've never had the opportunity to portray someone who is in the middle of a mob mentality and participating in it, but it's an interesting question. My immediate instinct is to say that the person would feel emotionally overwhelmed as part of the larger group. It's equally possible that the person would be outside the mob's emotional agreement and feel swept along. Interesting question - thanks!

    2. Chihuahua, I haven't ever been in a full scale riot - there's just not much to riot about in SLC - but large crowds make me very nervous for reasons of "herd mentality" over a mob. I tend to think of a mob as being there because they want something and they won't stop until they get it. In a herd it's just dumb people crowded together and awaiting the spark that sets off a panic. Case in point, we were at a fireworks display and something went wrong. All of a sudden there's a bright explosion and people just bolt. Kids are crying, wives are screaming for their husbands - the good ones stayed close and dove over their significant others, others were left feeling insignificant because the louse just turn tailed and ran for the car. What I'm getting at is one minute everything is fine and fun and normal, and then literally in a flash it's pandemonium and you're just swept along in the current.

    3. I've never been in a disaster crowd, thank goodness. But I was in a crowd of 1 million in Paris on July 14 once, with people throwing firecrackers, and it was pretty intense and scary. Thanks for sharing your experience, Realmwright.

  3. Excellent summary!

    Another set of dimensions can be found in Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti and his typology of crowds: baiting, flight, prohibition, etc.

    1. Thanks, Dave! Thanks very much for the recommendation, too. :)